Pops isn't just a good biography of Louis Armstrong's full and varied life. It's an exceptionally good biography. It shouldn't replace Laurence Bergreen's excellent Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant life (New York Times Notable Book for 1997) in anyone's library. But Teachout's book complements Bergreen's and it stand on its own as a model of sympathetic, scrupulously researched biographical writing. For those who are interested in him, there is little new that they can learn about the well examined life of this American icon.
As soon as popular critics and serious scholars started writing about that uniquely American pop music, jazz, they wrote about Armstrong. They couldn't avoid it because Armstrong, more than any other individual, set the standards and many of the conventions for jazz, in his playing and his singing. (Where would Bing Crosby have been without Louis to imitate?) He wasn't the first great jazz soloist: Sidney Bechet holds that honor by a few years. And Armstrong's seminal group, the Hot Five (later Hot Seven), played outside the recording studio just one time. It was never a working group, never a combo formed to play in the clubs and dance halls where jazz was being forged in the twenties and thirties.
Trying to imagine jazz without Armstrong is like trying to imagine modern art without Picasso or the essay form without Montaigne. His contemporaries knew it and admitted it. Even those who were on the outs with him -Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins--knew that Louis was The Man. Red Allen, the trumpeter with (to my mind) the most beautiful sound in jazz, wanted nothing more than to sound like Louis. Jack Teagarden tried to play him on the trombone (and succeeded). Even harbingers of modernity like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who were offended by what they saw as Armstrong's Uncle Tom antics on stage, admitted that Armstrong was The One.
A virtue of Teachout's fine book is to place Armstrong's on-stage antics and off-stage persona in context. Armstrong was by temperament, especially while performing, a sunny person, who enjoyed performing and did not draw a line between clowning and serious music making. (That's not quite accurate. Music making was the thing he cared about most in the world -even over home and his much beloved wife Lucille--and he was deadly serious about his music, but he didn't find it incongruous to perform well, to appeal to the audience. In short, as Teachout eloquently explains, Armstrong, like many performers of his generation, saw himself as an entertainer as well as and complementary to a musician. He wanted to do well in both guises, and did.
Teachout also does the reader a favor by his sympathetic and wise assessment of Louis's later performances and recordings, from the 1930s on. This is a body of work that many critics dismiss as the wreckage left over after Louis's artistic vision left him. (Even so savvy a critic as Gunther Schuller dismissed Louis's later work as uninspired.) Teachout does not argue for virtues that aren't there in Louis's often dreary big band recordings from the thirties, but he does point to individual recordings of excellence, and I found his assessment of the small group Louis led from 1947 on, the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, convincing. (Like me, Teachout finds Russ Garcia's arrangements for Louis in the late fifties an embarrassment, and, like me, wishes that Ellington and Armstrong had made more out of their one outing together, when all that happened was that Ellington sat in on piano with Louis's All-Stars.) I have decided! It's time for me to listen to more of the Louis of the thirties and forties. I've been missing out on a potential treat! I bought my first jazz record sixty years ago, when I was thirteen. It's time for me to listen to ALL of Louis, not just cherry pick across the decades.